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Keep an eye and ear out for the uncommon birds of April

Horned Grebe
David Larson
Horned Grebe

April isn’t my favorite month in the birding calendar, especially when its weather barely outperforms bleakest March, but it has its charms – the first hummingbirds and seabird migration among them. While we haven’t been wowed with warm, early spring weather, we have seen some of the hoped-for early bird happenings in the form of colorful and unexpected songbirds turning up a month early in the yards of a lucky few, plus some new plumages and behaviors from some of the ducks, loons, and grebes that quietly winter in numbers on our salty waters.

While out on a bay beach in Truro, I noticed some dark little birds swimming near shore, and realized they were Horned Grebes in their rarely seen breeding plumage. These little fish-fed waterbirds winter here in small numbers then quietly disappear around now, off to breed in marshy ponds, mostly in Canadian prairie provinces. When we see them they are almost always in fairly somber gray and white nonbreeding plumage, but with a striking ruby eye if you’re close enough to see it. There’s a short window in April when you have a chance to see their flamboyant breeding attire, and that time is now. These grebes I saw plying the Truro bay shore now had great, puffy black cheeks and fluffy yellow “horns”, plus brick red sides showing along the waterline like a newly painted hull – a welcome bit of eye candy on a cold spring beach.

Red-throated Loons are easier to find than the grebes, greatly outnumbering even the more familiar Common Loon on ocean beaches. These slender loons nest too far north to penetrate pop culture in the way their larger, lake nesting cousins on Golden Pond have. With slender necks and dainty, upturned bills, they also chase fish off the winter beaches, and by late May they are gone altogether back to Arctic tundra to breed. But if you’re lucky, you might catch one flashing their breeding finery before they go, like I did yesterday – one among about 20 grey and white winter-plumaged birds at Head of the Meadow in Truro sported the maroon throat, rich gray head, and angel-hair fine black and white stripes down the nape.

Black Scoters are not the most colorful of ducks and don’t show the dramatic seasonal transformations of the loons and grebes. They are pretty well black year-round, though the males have a bright orange knob on the bill that shows at great distance. But I don’t love them for their looks, it’s their mournful, un-duck-like calls that make me smile each April. Listen for the sad whistles of the males on ocean, bay, and sound right now – the sound from a flock will even carry inland on a calm day.

Another of the uncommon but expected treats of April is the chance of an early Indigo Bunting turning up somewhere, hopefully under your feeder. One Eastham resident lucked out and has been hosting a male over the last week, complete with his shimmering, electric blue breeding plumage. With luck that seems unfair to the rest of us, she also ended up with a very early Rose-breasted Grosbeak, crisply dressed in formal black and white with that red neckerchief adding just the right splash of color. These sought after yard birds sometimes visit sunflower seed feeders but are rare here even in May.

Yes, we’re just a few weeks from opening the floodgates of May migration, and the first scouts of the hummingbirds are likely as soon as next week, but April has more to offer the observant bird fancier than just those expected seasonal milestones. So whether you’re mainly birding from your windows, or out walking the beaches, keep an eye and ear out for the uncommon colors and calls of April.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.